The International Joint Commission, the bi-national group that helps to oversee the Great Lakes, held two public meetings in Buffalo on Tuesday – and more than 200 people showed up to share their concerns.
The commission is responsible for making recommendations to the U.S. and Canadian governments about how to address the challenges facing the Great Lakes.
But to do that, according to U.S. Chair Lana Pollack, they need an opportunity to listen to the public, the people on the ground. That’s why she and three other commissioners came to the WNED/WBFO studios as part of a multi-city tour.
"So, what we're here today to do is hear from some experts, and I know I will learn from those experts, hear from the public, and I know we'll all learn from each other," she told the crowd.
The meeting included presentations from eight experts, including academics, local officials, business advocates and representatives from environmental groups. They covered a wide range of issues facing the lakes.
Diana Aga, a professor of chemistry at the University at Buffalo, talked about increasing levels of contaminants -- from flame retardants to birth control hormones to anti-depressants -- in the area's fish.
"[W]hat the effects of fish are -- we haven't looked at that -- but I can only imagine happy fish with all these antidepressants. They might just go to the predator and not worry about being prey," she said.
Alicia Perez-Fuentetaja of Buffalo State College focused on one tiny fish, the emerald shiner, whose population is threatened due to shrinking habitats.
"So, one of the things that we first notice is these hardened shorelines," she said. "There's plenty of these bulkheads, vertical walls, throughout the river. These are areas where traditionally there had been a shoreline."
Throughout the presentations, three major themes emerged: pollution, access and habitat restoration. But presenters talked about their own progress addressing these challenges.
Oluwole McFoy, general manager of the Buffalo Sewer Authority, said the city is using green infrastructure and decreasing sewage runoff. "We've handed out over 1,200 rain barrels, we have porous asphalt streets, we have a number of porous asphalt parking lots."
And representatives from the Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper and the Lake Ontario Riverkeeper described how they help to forge relationships between people and the water.
The public was also invited to share their opinions about the Great Lakes' health. Area residents said they were concerned about aging sewer systems, access to drinking water and radioactive nuclear waste.
Many also offered personal stories about their relationships to the lake -- like Dick Smith, a former assemblyman. "My name is Dick Smith and I've been a resident of this area for more years that most people would like to count, but I've had the privilege of fishing and boating Lake Erie and the eastern basin for more than 70 years," he said.
Pollack says there is one unique concern emerging from the commission's meetings -- in a year in which President Trump has called for cutting $300 million in annual funding for Great Lakes projects: "We've heard a lot about a concern for loss of funding, for programs that are very much felt at home in peoples -- on their own beaches and their own wetlands and their own environments where they live."
The IJC will be accepting public comment on its website until April 15th.